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las vegas de santa clara
UT - Holt Canyon: Significance
By Mark Henderson and Rachel Preston Prinz
After leaving the New Mexico frontier community of Abiquiu, arriving at Las Vegas de Santa Clara, or Mountain Meadows, was possibly the most important milestone after crossing the Colorado River near modern Green River, Utah. The Las Vegas de Santa Clara was important to merchants on the Spanish Trail because it marked the last place with abundant forage before entering the Mohave Desert. Travelers across the Mojave sometimes resorted to eating their animals, not only as a result of lack of food sources, but also the inadequacy of forage at desert springs. Effusive descriptions of the suitability of Las Vegas to feed thousands of head of livestock were true, until a combination of wheeled vehicle passage cut the turf subjecting the meadow to erosion and overgrazing damaged the meadows. Current conditions in Holt Canyon provide an unparalleled opportunity to understand the impacts that historical livestock has had on the watersheds and vegetation starting with the passage of hundreds of pack animals each fall and thousands of head of horses and mules each spring by the commercial caravans on the Old Spanish Trail.
The Holt Canyon route segment of the Old Spanish Trail is representative of the following
historic contexts: Context 1: Mexican Period and the Beginning of International Trade and Commerce, 1821-1848 and Context 3: The Old Spanish Trail: The Main Route as defined in the Multiple Property Documentation Form Old Spanish Trail AD 1821-1848.
This historic site is eligible for listing under Criterion A as a property associated with events that have made a significant contribution to the broad patterns of history during the Mexican and Territorial Periods of under these areas of significance: commerce, economics, exploration/settlement, social history, and transportation.
Because of the paucity of first-hand accounts of the caravan traffic between New Mexico and California, there are only a few instances where specific events are associated with traffic along the trail. The first known record that Las Vegas de Santa Clara was used as part of the New Mexico trade caravans on the Spanish Trail is provided by John C. Frémont in 1854. Frémont anticipated “recruiting” his small military exploration party at would later become known as Mountain Meadows after crossing the Mojave Desert, where animals suffered from lack of quality and quantity forage. Though reported after the cessation of the Spanish Trail caravans in 1848, Gwen Harris Heap makes a point that wheat crops cultivated in the Taos Valley in 1853 were a hybrid of native grass seeds collected from Las Vegas de Santa Clara. After effusive descriptions by Frémont in 1844 stating that the meadows were ten miles in length, by 1848 Pratt reports the meadows only six miles in length. This might be a result of Frémont’s typical tendency for hyperbole, but given the ongoing record of damage which continues up to the present, the abundant forage source at Mountain Meadows may have been rapidly depleted by overuse, and evidence suggests that the area was so badly damaged by erosion in the 1860s that permanent settlements were abandoned by the early part of the 20th Century.
Later accounts also make it clear that Frémont’s concern that Paiute maurauders would continue to try to drive off livestock as he passed through Mountain Meadows, was not totally unfounded as demonstrated in the “Mormon Way Bill” of 1851 (Hafen and Hafen 1998:322).
There are no events specifically recorded within the Holt Canyon segment of the Old Spanish Trail, but the segment is part of the use of the trail and specifically the importance of this segment of trail for layovers to recruit livestock and people.
As with the entire “Spanish Trail” named by John C. Fremont in 1844, the Holt Canyon segment is associated with him. However, there is no clear specific importance of the place in Frémont’s career as an explorer. Frémont does recount being joined by the famous western explorer and trapper Joseph Walker, just after leaving Las Vegas de Santa Clara (Frémont 1845:271), who guided the party to Bent’s Fort on the Santa Fe Trail in Colorado (Gilbert 1983:200-201).
Any structural features of alignment in the Holt Canyon segment which might have been present are believed to have been destroyed by the down-cutting of the Mountain Meadows Creek channel. The channel itself is most likely the only remnant of the braided trail and livestock drover alignment. The Holt Canyon trail segment does present opportunities to yield archeological evidence of packtrail and livestock driveway activities in the period of the commercial caravan trade to California from New Mexico. Of particular interest is dating the down-cutting of the gulch and the changes in vegetation that are inferred to have occurred based on the historical evidence. Opportunities exist at Mountain Meadows to reconstruct vegetation based on fossil pollen evidence and geomorpohological study. Archeological techniques such as soil chemistry, metal detection, ground penetrating radar, as well as traditional archeological techniques such as fine grained mapping and excavations will not be feasible unless the currently inferred alignments are protected from further erosion. Monitoring of the existing livestock and use should be monitored through repeat photography, vegetation transects and micro-stratigraphic studies of the stream channel. Because of the repeated use and multiple day “recruitment” at “Las Vegas de Santa Clara,” reconnaissance for revealed objects and features that may have been left in the second quarter of the 19th Century should be on-going.